After going through a series of less-than-successful designs in the late teens and early twenties, Gibson finally made a strong entry into the banjo market with the introduction of its Mastertone banjo line in 1925. The highest-priced banjo in the Gibson Mastertone line was the style 5, seen here in a rare plectrum configuration. #8109-6 dates to 1925 (see Gibson banjo serial numbers vs. factory order numbers); the tone ring is the ball-bearing type used in the earliest Mastertone banjos; two features unique to 1925 are the holes in the outer skirt of the tone ring and the inlaying of “Mastertone” in small individual letters on the pehgead rather than in a mother-of-pearl block on the fingerboard.
This banjo conforms to standard specifications for the style 5 Mastertone banjo of the period with walnut neck and resonator, gold-plated and heavily engraved hardware, a two-piece “tube and plate” flange, multicolored wood purfling, multicolored wood inlay on the back of the peghead, iridescent “smoky pearl” binding, and mother-of-pearl inlays in the “wreath” pattern.
#8109-6 is an extremely rare banjo; Gibson researcher Joe Spann estimates the total production of ball-bearing style 5 Mastertone banjos at ten units. Its longtime owner was Charles Earle Funk III (November 11, 1937–February 13, 2020) of Coventry, Connecticut. The banjo was a Christmas gift to Mr. Funk in the late 1970s from a neighbor who had played in a fretted instrument orchestra in Hartford, Connecticut. Mr. Funk’s son Benjamin tells us “My father was pretty proficient with multiple string instruments including the stand-up bass, banjo, guitar, and mandolin. There were often gatherings at our home during the late 1960s through the late 1970s where he and his friends would play.”
Photos courtesy of Benjamin Funk.